A Blog Post Wherein I Play the Fool.
I used to run and play in a lot of LARPs, or Live-Action Role Playing games for those of you who have arrived at this blog from some other dimension, and some of those games were shit. Not "the shit" as in good, though some of them were the shit, but some were terrible shit, as in shitty and terrible games. And I'm talking about the games I ran as well as the games that I played in. I have run some shit LARPs in my day. Many of these games I played in, wrote or ran, I also played in, wrote or ran with Thomas and because we enjoy talking about games nearly as much as we enjoy playing them and because it is often easier to talk about games just the two of us than to find a group, schedule a time and play a game, we talked about the problems that we found with LARPs a lot.
Of course, not having played, run or written a LARP in a few years, I forgot all my LARP gripes and lessons when I started running an online influence game using a mishmash of the original World of Darkness Vampire the Dark Ages or VtDA (actually the confusingly re-named Dark Ages: Vampire which has an less impressive DA:V acronym) and a heavily modified Influence System derived mostly from Mind's Eye Theater (MET) Dark Epics. Since I've been more focused in the last several years on party-driven tabletop games like D&D or even more story-driven games like Dread and Apocalypse World, I let my years of LARP experience go almost completely untapped, much to the detriment of the game I was running.
The idea of the game was that some of my favorite people to play with, Thomas, John and Amber, had all deserted Minnesota for various far-flung deserts and rural Japanese villages and I wanted to run a game for them, partly because various hints had been dropped that I should, so I proposed an online game of secretive characters vying for influence and then forgot all the lessons I learned from LARPs.
To my credit I let the players choose the system and setting, so we ended up with the aforementioned VtDA/MET Dark Epics rules and the setting of Toulouse in 1230, just after the infamous Albigensian Crusade against the Cathars had ended. Wanting to keep the players guessing and not trusting them to not collude outside of the game, much of my initial GM energy was spent in ways that had I kept my LARPing in mind I would have seen that they were counter-productive. Without further ado, I present the LARP lessons I forgot:
- Communicating to the Players What the Game Is About
- Before writing this post, I went back and found my original pitch for my game and looked at additional posts I made about it. Never once did I say what the game would be about or why it would be fun.
- My early posts focused more on the logistics than content and even in my pitches for the various settings/rules that we could use I didn't explain that I envisioned a game of the players vying for influence and political clout, with part of the fun being scheming with and against friends, never really knowing for sure who was playing who. Judging by many of the "dear GM what is going on in the game, what should I be doing" emails I got a month into running the game, this was a big mistake that I should have known to avoid.
- See, when Thomas and I got into LARPs, it was through Gaming Conventions, where having a concise and accurate description of the game, the basic plot and the tenor of the game was important, because when you're running a humorous LARP about the pantheon of Greek Gods where players will be forced to wear a toga and where Nookie is not only a rule, but the having of nookie is a goal for nearly a third of the characters, the last thing you want is some player showing up expecting a child-friendly or serious and factually accurate game about Ancient Greek Mythology.
- Additionally, not knowing what the game is about prevents players from giving their characters goals that tie into the game and causes great confusion as not everyone is on the same page about what the game's default goals are.
- When Thomas and I were chatting about this recently, he pointed me to this excellent clip from Shut Up & Sit Down that's about Explaining Rules for Board Games but also addresses this issue of explaining what the game is and why it's fun really well.
- Connected Backgrounds / The Dilemma of the Novice
- Characters having unconnected backgrounds were always a weak point in many of the World Of Darkness organized play LARPs I played in and helped run. New players would make a character and have no connection to the established characters and then because they had no connections it made it extremely easy for established players to basically ignore them, forcing every plot in the game to center around long-running 300xp characters and leaving new characters, and more importantly their players, to sit twiddling thumbs.
- Conversely, this is something I should really have known better because one of the most important things I learned from running one-shot convention style LARPs was to connect each character's background at at least three other characters and at least two in-game plots. We often even went as far as giving the characters official factions to belong to, so that if nothing else players could work towards the group goal. Having a background that is tied to the plots of the game and to other characters gives new players ready made relationships and goals for their characters and also lets them know how their character fits into the setting and the game.
- Because one of my possibly misguided central principles when I organized the game was player and character secrecy I cut off any chance for the players to coordinate their characters and backgrounds and because I had taken this game on as the fourth game I was running, I was also running two every other week D&D Next games and a monthly Apocalypse World game at the time, and playing in two Type IV D&D games, I did not have the time to work to tie character backgrounds together as the GM.
- Unfortunately, as it often is, this disconnectedness turned out to be a greater problem for the players who had not played a game of this style before more than it was for my players who were more familiar with these secretive influence games. My more experienced players crafted backgrounds and goals that gave them reasons to seek influence in the game and meant they were not as lost as the other players. This is a common problem in LARPs, especially on-going LARPs where often new players are adrift, whereas experienced players, even if they might be playing a new character, can take advantage of their knowledge of what the game is about (see bullet one above, Communicating....) to improve their ability to tie their characters in the game.
- The result was that the first half-dozen turns or so left many of the characters and players grasping blindly at what the plot and relationships in the game were. The more experienced players dealt better with this, laying the groundwork for their long-term goals, but the less experienced players were left wondering each turn what to do and if they were accomplishing anything.
- If I had taken a less paranoid approach to character creation to better encourage connections between characters or if I had taken the time to work with players to connect their backgrounds to other players, even by establishing three or four clear factions so that factions could organize and scheme together, much of the initial floundering of the first 6 turns of the game could have been avoided.
- The Death Knell that is NPC Theater
- One of the first lessons that John, Thomas and I learned when running our first Vampire, Changeling and Fading Suns LARPs for our High School friends is that when players, and their characters, don't wish to be in positions of power, you need to change the focus of the game from a struggle for political power to something else. What you don't want to do is to succumb to NPC Theater, where the characters become secondary to the actions of NPCs enacting mechanically the plot that was originally meant for PCs.
- NPC Theater can be a scourge of games, leaving the PCs out of the action and relegating the players to mere observers of the games plot. The other danger of NPC theater is the longer it goes on, the harder it is to draw the player characters back in.
- I had dreams of the game being largely self-sustaining, as we had sometimes when planning our old high school LARPs. Of the players giving their characters political goals so that their scheming against each other alone would generate and sustain the games plot, not remembering how that had never worked out in the past.
- When I was organizing the game, I reached out to the players to see if any had any interest in their characters having a positions of power in the game and received a resounding reply of "not really" from pretty much every player. But instead of remembering my high school LARP lessons and refocusing the plot of the game from a struggle for political power to something else, I plowed ahead, succumbing to NPC theater and using NPCs to enact the plot my players were not interested in.